Designer salt

It can look beautiful and taste a little different — but designer salt is still about 99% sodium chloride.
 
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  • Updated:5 Feb 2006
 

01 .Introduction

Designer-salt

In brief

  • Sea salt, pink salt, Maldon salt, Murray River salt … it seems salt’s more than just salt these days. Some of these fancy types look beautiful, and they can taste a little different from each other, but they’re still at least 99% sodium chloride
  • … which means too much of them is just as bad for you as too much ordinary salt. There’s now good evidence linking salt with high blood pressure, so it’s worth watching how much you eat.

All the celebrity chefs have their favourites: Jamie’s is Maldon salt (from his beloved Essex); Nigella seems to go for Maldon or other sea salt too; Stefano di Pieri has tied his gondola to Murray River salt; Maeve O’Meara and her Food Lover’s Guide say Australian sea salt is “as good as you can get”; Neil Perry favours sea salt too, but despite their surfing theme, Ben and Curtis mostly go with plain old salt. So what’s with the celebrity salt?

Please note: this information was current as of February 2006 but is still a useful guide today.


 
 

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High blood pressure is often called the ‘silent killer’ because there are no obvious symptoms — but the higher your blood pressure, the greater the risk of having a stroke or heart attack.

There’s now very good evidence that too much salt is a major cause of high blood pressure:

  • A high salt intake is associated with an increased risk of developing high blood pressure as you get older.
  • If you already have high blood pressure a low-salt diet can lower it.
  • If you’re on blood-pressure-lowering medication, a low-salt diet can boost the effect and you may be able to take less (but check with your GP first).

Shake the salt habit

The National Health and Medical Research Council’s Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults recommend that you choose foods low in salt and cut back to no more than about 6 g of salt a day (a bit over a teaspoonful, amounting to around 2.3 g of sodium). But it’s not as easy as it sounds, because about 75% of the salt in many people’s food comes hidden in processed foods and takeaways and you don’t know how much of it you’re eating.

We checked the sodium levels (which are given on labels in milligrams rather than grams) in some of the foods in the CHOICE standard grocery basket that we use to compare supermarket prices (see the Sodium savings, table). If you ate a serve of all these foods over a day they’d give you about 3500 mg of sodium — considerably more than the maximum daily intake of 2300 mg (2.3 g) recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults.

Often there are low-salt or reduced-salt versions. Choosing these could save you nearly 2000 mg of sodium and bring the total to well below the recommended maximum (see the table for details).

Particular foods to watch are:

  • Bread. On average about 25% of our salt intake comes from bread. You can buy low-salt bread but you may have to search for it.
  • Breakfast cereals. Many popular brands have far too much salt (see Breakfast cereals for details). Muesli is usually a good choice.
  • Foods such as bacon, sausages and most cheeses, where salt is traditionally used as a preservative.
  • Soups, tinned vegetables and sauces can be loaded with salt. There can be big differences between brands, so check the labels.
  • Cakes and biscuits can be surprisingly salty. Again it varies a lot from brand to brand, so check the labels. Our shopping basket contains ARNOTT’S Tim Tam biscuits, which are relatively low in salt (170 mg of sodium per 100 g), but if you bought ARNOTT’S Tiny Teddy Chocolate biscuits instead, you’d be getting 390 mg of sodium per 100 g.

Label lingo

Food labels now make it easier to choose foods with less salt. The nutrition information panel must tell you the amount of sodium (rather than salt) in the food you’re eating (see the salt-sodium connection).

To compare products it’s best to use the amount per 100 g rather than the amount per serve, as serving sizes can vary. But don’t agonise over small differences (50 mg or so). These numbers are only averages and the actual sodium levels from batch to batch could easily differ from those stated on the label by as much 20%. Low-salt foods must have less than 120 mg sodium per 100 g of the food.



Sodium savings

Low or reduced-salt equivalent
Product
(in order of highest to lowest salt per serve)
Serve size
(g)
Sodium
(mg / serve)
Product Sodium
(mg / serve)
Sodium saved
per serve
(mg)
Bacon middle rashers 50 700 (B) 700 0
SPC Baked Beans 210 700 HEINZ Baked Beans No Added Salt 42 658
TIP TOP Sunblest Soft White Bread 65 293 MOORE’S Low Salt Wholemeal Bread 49 244
DOLMIO Chunky Bolognaise Sauce 131 549 DOLMIO Chunky Bolognaise Sauce Low Salt 333 216
KRAFT Singles 21 301 NIMBIN Natural Cheese Reduced Sodium 63 238
GREENSEAS Tuna Chunks in Brine 65 195 SAFCOL Tuna in Springwater 98 97
SAKATA Barbecue Rice Crackers 30 176 TRIDENT Plain Rice Crackers 48 128
Butter 25 174 WESTERN STAR Unsalted Butter 5 169
KELLOGG’S Nutri Grain 30 167 SANITARIUM Puffed Wheat 2 165
ARNOTT’S Tim Tam Biscuits (A) 30 51 (A) 51 0
SAN REMO Large Pasta Spirals 120 36 (C) 36 0
JUST JUICE Orange Juice 200 (C) 0
GOULBURN VALLEY Peach Slices 50 4 (C) 4 0
McCAIN Frozen Peas 50 2 (C) 2 0
Total sodium per day 3358 Total sodium savings (1443) 1915
Table notes
(A) Tim Tams are relatively low in salt; other biscuits may have a lot more.
(B) There is no low or reduced-salt equivalent.
(C) These products naturally have relatively little salt.

Low or reduced-salt equivalent
Product
(in order of highest to lowest salt per serve)
Serve size
(g)
Sodium
(mg / serve)
Product Sodium
(mg / serve)
Sodium saved
per serve
(mg)
Bacon middle rashers 50 700 (B) 700 0
SPC Baked Beans 210 700 HEINZ Baked Beans No Added Salt 42 658
TIP TOP Sunblest Soft White Bread 65 293 MOORE’S Low Salt Wholemeal Bread 49 244
DOLMIO Chunky Bolognaise Sauce 131 549 DOLMIO Chunky Bolognaise Sauce Low Salt 333 216
KRAFT Singles 21 301 NIMBIN Natural Cheese Reduced Sodium 63 238
GREENSEAS Tuna Chunks in Brine 65 195 SAFCOL Tuna in Springwater 98 97
SAKATA Barbecue Rice Crackers 30 176 TRIDENT Plain Rice Crackers 48 128
Butter 25 174 WESTERN STAR Unsalted Butter 5 169
KELLOGG’S Nutri Grain 30 167 SANITARIUM Puffed Wheat 2 165
ARNOTT’S Tim Tam Biscuits (A) 30 51 (A) 51 0
SAN REMO Large Pasta Spirals 120 36 (C) 36 0
JUST JUICE Orange Juice 200 (C) 0
GOULBURN VALLEY Peach Slices 50 4 (C) 4 0
McCAIN Frozen Peas 50 2 (C) 2 0
Total sodium per day 3358 Total sodium savings (1443) 1915

Table notes

(A) Tim Tams are relatively low in salt; other biscuits may have a lot more.
(B) There is no low or reduced-salt equivalent.
(C) These products naturally have relatively little salt.

Q1. Most of the salt in our diet comes from:

A Salt we shake on at the table.
B Salt that’s added during food processing.
C Salt that occurs naturally in foods.

B is the correct answer.

Salt that’s added during food processing. On average, about 75% of our salt intake comes from processed food. Fresh foods generally contain very little. Even saltwater fish has only about 80–100 mg of sodium per 100 g, and meat, such as lamb, has about the same. Fruit and vegetables have less — broccoli about 8 mg and apples about 2 mg of sodium per 100 g.
You’re unlikely to add much from a salt shaker. A study of people’s salt-shaking habits found that the amount they added depended more on the size of the hole than taste preferences.

Q2. Too much salt can cause:

A Diabetes.
B Tooth decay.
C High blood pressure.

C High blood pressure.

There’s now strong evidence that too much salt can cause high blood pressure (see Salt and high blood pressure). A high salt intake may also increase your risk of stomach cancer, which is particularly prevalent in Japan where they eat a lot of salt-preserved foods. On that basis, it’s better not to eat lots of salt-preserved foods such as anchovies and olives too often. There’s no evidence salt can cause diabetes or tooth decay.

Q3. Which has the most salt?

A Frozen green beans.
B Fresh green beans.
C Tinned green beans.

C Tinned green beans.

Fresh and frozen green beans contain very little salt, while tinned ones are often salted. The amount added can vary a lot between brands, so check the labels.

Q4. A bowl of cornflakes has about the same amount of salt as a small packet of potato crisps.

A True.

B False.

A is the correct answer.

Cornflakes are still one of the saltiest cereals around. For more information on the salt content of cereals, see Breakfast cereals

Q5. Celery salt and garlic salt don’t count. They’re made from vegetables, so I can have as much as I like.

A True.

B False.

B False.

Celery salt and garlic salt are only ordinary salt with some added flavours. They have almost the same sodium content as ordinary salt.

Q6. I’m a keen runner and compete in triathlons so I lose a lot of salt as sweat, especially in the summer months. I need plenty of salt on my food to avoid getting cramp.

A True.
B False.

B False.

We need sodium for transmitting electrical impulses through nerves and assisting in muscle contraction. But we only need 1–2 g of salt a day to replace salt lost from the body in sweat and urine. If you’re not eating a lot of salt your body adjusts and your sweat is less salty. There seems to be no basis to the common belief that lack of salt causes muscle cramps, and the Australian army no longer issues salt tablets to troops operating in tropical conditions.

Q7. You can always tell what foods are high in salt because they taste salty.

A True.
B False.

B False.

Some foods that are high in salt don’t taste very salty. Sometimes this is because they have a lot of sugar, such as some biscuits and breakfast cereals. And our taste buds get used to high levels of salt, so you might not notice the saltiness of some foods. Once you cut back on salt and come back to a food you used to eat you might be surprised at how salty it tastes.

Q8. Salt ‘brings out the flavour’ in food and it’s bland without it.

A True.
B False.

B False.

False in reality, though if you’re used to foods that are high in salt or add lots of salt to your food, you could find meals bland and uninteresting when you first cut down because our taste buds get used to high levels. If you persevere for a few weeks you can train them to taste food with less, and then you’re more likely to enjoy food with less salt or even with none at all. Salt can hide more subtle flavours, so you might prefer some foods when your taste buds have had time to adjust..

Q9. Only old people need to worry about how much salt they eat.

A True.
B False.

B False.

The association between salt and high blood pressure is certainly strongest for older people. But recent studies show that too much salt can raise your blood pressure at any age. It’s true that you have less chance of developing heart disease or a stroke in your 20s or 30s than when you’re older. But if you have high blood pressure when you’re young, you’re still at greater risk than someone the same age with normal blood pressure

Q10. You have to use salt in cooking. Recipe books tell you to use it — and so do the chefs on TV cooking shows.

A True.
B False.

B False.

True and false — salt in the cooking water makes vegetables soften quicker and pasta easier to cook to a perfect al dente, but in recipes it’s usually a matter of taste (see Question 8). Cooking with naturally salty foods like bacon or sausage is likely to make a bigger difference to the amount of salt you eat than adding salt to a recipe — and as with all things salt, less is healthier than more..

However designer the salt, it’s still about 99% sodium chloride. Impurities and trace amounts of other minerals can give it a slightly different flavour, but whether you’ll really still taste a difference after you’ve added it to the food and cooked it all together is a very open question. However, fancy salt does look good while you’re cooking. As Maeve O’Mara told us: “It’s an aesthetic thing — these salts are lovely on the table and they feel lovely between the fingers.”

The slight differences in looks and taste depend on the minute traces of various minerals and on how the different salts are made.

  • Sea salt is made by evaporating seawater. If it isn’t refined it contains traces of magnesium, calcium and other minerals that add a slightly bitter flavour (and it can also have a few algae, salt-tolerant bacteria and other bits and pieces).
  • MALDON sea salt comes as large, flaky crystals. It’s made from seawater “using only traditional natural methods” and claims to be “a completely natural product, retaining valuable seawater trace elements such as magnesium and calcium”.
  • HALEN MON Pure White sea salt comes from “the fresh Atlantic waters around the Isle of Anglesey” off Britain. Its label (in Welsh as well as English) claims, “Sea salt crystals provide a balance of minerals and trace elements such as magnesium, zinc, potassium and calcium.”
  • MASTERFOODS sea salt helpfully tells you that it “contains sodium, an essential trace element. Our bodies need it for healthy cell functioning.” All true — but no mention of how little sodium we in fact need.
  • MURRAY RIVER Gourmet salt flakes are also flaky crystals like MALDON, but they’re a pinkish-brown colour. They’re made from “underground saline waters” in the Murray-Darling Basin that have “been lying dormant for thousands of years”.
  • HORIZON Crystal salt flakes is another Australian product, also from an underground source of saline water (in northern Victoria). It claims to have “a full-bodied natural flavour that leaves no aftertaste or bitterness”.
  • Celtic salt is sea salt made using traditional methods on the Atlantic coast of Brittany in France. In the tradition of druids and sacred groves, BLOOMS Natural Celtic sea salt claims, “Celtic salt may have an effect on the aging process due to its influence on the structure of our cells.” Too good to be true? Probably — we asked the manufacturer for evidence to justify its claim, but none was forthcoming.
  • Rock salt comes from underground salt deposits. It’s usually been refined, otherwise it would be like the rough stuff that’s used for de-icing roads in North America. This doesn’t stop some manufacturers from making special claims. SELECT NATURALS rock salt, for example, says it’s “the natural choice for good health”.
  • Black salt from India is another version of rock salt. When ground it’s a pinkish-grey colour rather than black. It comes from volcanic regions and has a strong sulphurous flavour. You might see it recommended for people with high blood pressure or even claims that it contains no sodium — not true.
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